Intro & Interview by Shanon Weltman
Despite his hard to pronounce last name, Joe Wierenga will probably one day be a staple in the animation world. His gift of storytelling and drawing are also his life force, like in a videogame, but real life. When Joe creates a new illustration or animation, he does not
simply walk into Mordor draw from his head. He’s almost like a method actor in that he gets into his stories and characters so deeply he starts to think like them. For example, when researching to create female gaming avatars he learned so much about women’s fashion that he could get a part time job as a stylist. I’ve been a fan of Joe’s artwork from the first drawing I ever saw by him back in freshman year of undergrad at MICA. Not only has he gotten steadily better as the years pass, but he also has barely lost any momentum since college, which is a challenge most artists face.
SHANON WELTMAN: Do you prefer when you’re animating, to animate for games or for just animation?
JOE WIERENGA: Hm, I don’t know. Games you tend to animate the same thing over and over. Games require the character walking, the character jumping, the character getting hurt… so with games you get really good at doing those things, but you don’t really get the chance to animate fire or waterfalls or birds flying as often. It’s nice to switch things up a bit.
SW: Are your freelance jobs mostly animated or illustrated?
JW: Mostly animation at this point. I tend to like animation jobs because they last longer. Freelance gigs, y’know… you work for a couple of days, and then it’s over and then you gotta hustle and find a new client again. Animation tends to last a couple of weeks to a couple of months. Promoting myself is the thing I’m least comfortable doing. It cuts down on the amount of that, that I have to do.
SW: Does it pay way better to do animation?
JW: My hourly rate is the same, it’s just each job tends to pay more because it lasts longer.
SW: Who is your dream client and why? or someone you’d like to work for if not as freelance?
JW: Whoever wants to pay me to make my own cartoon show is my dream client.
SW: Are you interested in any kind of style, like a kids style like Nickelodeon or a more adult style like Augenblick [Studios]? Or do you just want to start your own thing?
JW: I’m more interested in stories than in style, I find myself more attracted to the more sophisticated stories with character depth and plot. More so than simple episodic things. A lot of people have these interesting narratives. Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is one of my most favorite things ever made.
SW: What other shows do you relate to?
JW: Sure, “Doctor Who” is incredible! I just got tickets to go see the 50th Anniversary in 3D at IMAX at Union Square! It’s going to be amazing.
SW: How would you connect that to your career? Would “Avatar” be the show most like that in that realm?
JW: [Laughs] That’s part of the million dollar question. As soon as I find out the answer to that I’ll get back to you…
SW: You always seem to have a few active storylines you’re working on. How many are in the works now?
JW: Three in an active way…
SW: Do you want to elaborate?
JW: [Pause]…No. [Laughs]
SW: [Laughs] Okay…
JW: That’s the thing, it’s always changing! The way I tend to work is, I will write until I hit a wall on a project, then immediately jump to another project. I’ll keep working on that until I hit the wall. By that time, the [problem] I was having with the first project, the answer will just sort of come to me. That’s how it works. When you’re not thinking about something, that’s when you find it. So, I find it’s easier to just move between things instead of just beating my head against the wall on one. That is a good way to paralyze yourself. Then you don’t do anything. I guess I did elaborate.
SW: When did you start working on the nude series?
JW: The life drawing, I was really fortunate to have a teacher in high school who really got me interested in life drawing. Up until that point I was mostly drawing superheroes and things out of my head. Demanding a more academic observational portfolio, turned out to be the healthiest thing for me. I started picking it up again a few years ago. I had a job that was really monotonous and I just kind of needed a more creative escape. So I started going to life drawing sessions. There are a million of them around NY, so it’s a really great place to do that. It was just the greatest, it was like going to the gym; I just felt better afterwards. Even when I have periods where I’m not feeling like I’m being so productive or so creative in other aspects of my life, having this weekly habit of going to a drawing session at least once a week, just always makes me feel like I’m doing something. It’s just a really healthy habit. I started putting them online a couple of years ago.
SW: What’s a couple of years ago?
JW: In 2011, at the end of the year I started feeling like I was at least reaching a high level of consistency with them and so I started a Tumblr for them and the Tumblr has also been really good, because it forced me to keep at it. I don’t want the Tumblr to go silent for more then a couple of days, so I always have to have new updates. It keeps me active.
SW: How many of the drawings do you think you’ve done so far?
JW: [Laughs] Ah..
SW: Just since you started the Tumblr. Ballpark.
JW: I don’t know… 800?
SW: So if you’ve gone once a week, you’ve gone 800 weeks? What?
JW: [Laughs] I go to the short pose sessions. And I never actually finish the drawing at the drawing session. I’ll do the line drawing or just put down some ink and some basic notes on where the shading goes. Then come home and work it up with color, or gouache and if a drawing session has ten minute and twenty minute poses, on a good week I can come home with 4 or 5 drawings worth finishing. It’s sort of become my morning routine. In order to warm up for my daily activities, I’ll work on a watercolor for awhile. I’ll get it to a good point, scan it and put it in the queue for the Tumblr.
SW: Do you have any advice for someone trying to do freelance full-time? Maybe just now stepping in to that.
JW: Whatever industry you want to go to, try to make friends with as many people as you can and try to make friends with people who aren’t also artists. If you want to go into comics, make friends with writers. If you want to go into games, make friends with programmers and game designers. Because those people are not going to be competing with you for the same jobs. I’d say 90% of every freelance gig I’ve ever gotten has been through a friend, like a programmer who I met on a previous job. Who then switched companies or had a project where they needed to hire a new artist and thought of me. So… make as many friends as you can and as wide and diverse a group as you can.
SW: Have you been able to maintain paying your bills? Do you have any advice towards saving? What you said is really good, but someone who is say an illustrator and doesn’t have freelance projects going for weeks. How would you maintain getting the work if not through how you described? Have you experienced that or have you been lucky enough to go job to job?
JW: [Laughs] I’ve been experiencing that more and more lately, I don’t know. Saving… some years I’m able to put a lot away, some years I’m not. I always use a professional accountant to do my taxes, because there are a lot of details and things about being a freelancer that are just way over my head and I have no head for numbers. So, usually my accountant will come and tell me, “If you put this much into an IRA, it will actually reduce the amount you have to pay by this much.” I tend to follow her lead on how much I put away.
SW: Here’s your last question and by far the most important. Who is your favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle?
JW: Y’know, I gotta say, as a kid I was really boring and my favorite was Leonardo. But now I’m totally a Donatello fan. Especially in the new Ninja Turtles, they gave him a gap in his teeth–
SW: You saw the new Ninja Turtles!? [Laughs]
JW: Yeah! He’s really the only one with a distinguishing characteristic other then the color of his mask in the new series. He gets a gap in his teeth because he’s a nerd I guess? It’s supposed to make him look a little buck-tooth.